Monday, November 29, 2010

The Key to Good Study Skills for Kids? Less Homework

There is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding public education and who's responsible for today's failings kids.  Is it teachers? (the documentary Waiting for Superman faults teacher's unions).  Is it lack of funds? (in California, K-12 education has been cut beyond needing a tourniquet and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight).  Is it parents? (working parents are too busy to get involved in their children's education).  Then there is the other side of the controversy.  Kids who are over-scheduled and stressed out are facing tremendous consequences of burn out as they strive to be the best, have the highest SAT scores, take the most AP courses, and get into the top colleges.  The documentary Race To Nowhere addresses this citing homework policies that have kids working for 6 hours a day or more as contributing to the problem. The film also says that teaching to the test, and teaching kids how to take a test, is not giving them the critical thinking skills that they will need to succeed in college or life.

As a college teacher, I see this manifested in two ways.  Many of my students are unfocused, unprepared, and unmotivated.  Definitely a product of a failing education system.  On the other hand, I see students who are trying to balance more than one job and a family while trying to gain an education to advance beyond their current life and the lives their parents had.  They are tired and careless.  They can't focus.

I think about this a lot with regard to my own kids who, in second grade, while still relatively new to the public education system, are already showing a tendency toward patterns that could stick with them for the life of their education.

T1 wants to get his homework over with.  Just today, he asked me, "Why do we have to do the same thing week after week?" They do about 2 worksheets a day as well as writing spelling words 5 times each twice a week.  "It's boring," he says.  I understand the idea of repetition as a way to reinforce concepts and to practice skills, but this is the same work he's doing in class.  It's mega-repetition to the point of boredom.

T2 has the opposite opinion about the homework.  She almost always turns it into a game for herself.  Today, she pretended to be a teacher and gave a lesson on the homework to her doll.  She enjoys doing it and creates similar work for herself when she doesn't have homework.  I believe she has the intrinsic motivation that makes a life long learner. 

Homework is part of education.  Lifelong learners are constantly seeking answers to questions long after their formal education is done.  They practice homework simply because they are never done learning.  Homework and studying are how lifelong learners get to be lifelong learners.

Then again, there is research from Duke University by Harris Cooper that shows that there is no skills reinforcement with homework in elementary school.  Children basically know what they need to know from the work they're doing in class.  So why do they do homework?  They have to, right?  How else will they have the skills to study in middle school or high school?  They've got to do something, right?

Our district last year developed a homework policy that is in line with the current research on the subject.  The rule of 10 minutes per day per grade level is currently what my children are expected to do.  We're doing that, but like I said above, it seems like even this 20 minutes needs an overhaul to make it relevant to the child's life and stimulating to their critical thinking sensibility.

I think the answer is elusive.  I try to create more interesting tasks within the required homework, but that's often met with, "Mooommm, we don't have to do that!"  Is the 20 minutes a day workable for my kids?  Absolutely.  Even though I don't know exactly what the magic panacea is to the dull homework, I do know what motivates my kids and I am more than willing to modify the homework to give the kids the unstructured play that will definitely fill their brains.

What's your homework policy?  How do you inspire a love of learning in your children?


MomAgain@40 said...

Interesting read! My daughter is a good student, and does her homework well in advance. I never had to force her! (I do not hear the same thing for boys!)
I used to sit with her in the evenings when she was smaller (gr 1 - 4) to help her for about an hour, but after that she did it on her own.

Mac Kid Pasadena Publisher Mom said...

This is an issue that is important to me and my family. Thanks for writing about it.

I'm very sensitive about the amount of homework my 1st grader is getting. So far, I've been very pleased - it's more project-based this year, less about rote memorization and silly drills, and he gets a packet on Friday of the whole week's homework, which lets him decide when he's going to do his homework.

The one time my 6 year-old felt overwhelmed this year, I suggested we talk to his teacher. He was scared because he was afraid she'd get mad. I went with him, he told her he felt there was too much work, and she said it was ok if he didn't do all of it. She asked him to do one part in particular so that she could do her "homework" for the class. He came home after that talk and finished all of the week's work in less than 30 minutes.

The confidence he gained from that interaction is priceless and I'm very impressed with his teacher's attitude towards homework, especially since my son attends a private school with the reputation of being "a rigorous academic school with tons of homework."

This reputation has not been evident to us this year. However, for someone who is very sensitive to the issues raised in Race to Nowhere (achievement-driven kids and parents, the extreme focus on tests and getting into the "right" college), I will continue to be an advocate for my children as they navigate the academic waters going forward.

Thank you, Grateful Twin Mom, for continuing this dialogue about homework, priorities, and what fills our kids' brains.

--Mac Kid Pasadena publisher mom

notmytree said...

This video is pretty relevant... I agree that the education system is flawed. I hate having to cram for a test or go through some dumb requirement class that I'm not interested in. My education SHOULD be about what I feel is valuable for me to learn, not the hoops others want me to jump through. But then again, I suppose I'm more self-motivated than most when it comes to education. If school was self-decided, it's possible many would just drop out. Lots of kids only go to school because they have to.

This stress over lots of homework only gets worse in college where it's like the class is supplement to the homework/reading/labs, not the other way around. And finals week, oh my god. I've never been so stressed before in my life, and now it comes around 3 times a year. Every quarter come finals week, I consider dropping out and becoming a cake decorator. Only half joking.

Making It Work Mom said...

Interesting post. My two oldest get homework (grades 5 and 3)and while both are good students neither one like homework and just look to get it out of the way. I believe that homework helps my son (3rd grader) more. School work does not come as easy for him and I often find that the homework is a nice connection for him to what he had been learning all day.
My oldest benefits from the big Projects! She loves these and is very enthusiastic and learns a lot during the process.
Homework is not always about the work that is given, but is also about establishing those study habits that will serve the child well in life through highschool, college, and then work. Of course that is where the parent comes in. Making sure that the children truly have a study routine and are establishing those good habits.
The debate wages on...